Virtual Schools

Where Do Students Go When They Leave Their Online Charter Schools?

Recent coverage by a television station in North Carolina examined why two virtual charter schools in the state have such seemingly high numbers of students departing. Both schools, NC Connections Academy and NC Virtual Academy, are new — in just their third year of operation.

Last year, according to WRAL reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe, in terms of raw numbers, the schools enrolled about 4,400 students and lost almost 1,200 — about 27 percent. The year before they enrolled 3,900 students and lost more than 1,200, a 30 percent reduction. However, last year the state changed its regulations to allow the schools to stop counting specific types of departures, such as students who never show up for class, those who enroll with the intention of attending for a finite period or those who withdraw within a month of enrollment. That change enabled both schools to report a student withdrawal rate of only 5 percent.

What's especially interesting is that before WRAL began looking into why those students left their online schools, the schools themselves didn't appear to show much interest in compiling details to understand possible trends. According to the coverage, school leaders have preferred to rely on "anecdotes to explain why students depart."

WRAL undertook a study of student withdrawals that involved obtaining data from the schools directly through public records requests, as well as from the state Office of Charter Schools, which surveyed parents whose students had been enrolled for less than nine months in 2015-2016 about why their kids had withdrawn.

Among the responses, reported Hinchcliffe, some parents complained that the classes were too easy or too hard, that teachers didn't communicate well, that the programs relied too much on adult intervention ("coaches") at home or that the programs were confusing:

  • "We were quite disappointed with the school. We had numerous teacher changes and many complications with the math program especially. We decided to withdraw our son from the program after one semester and re-enroll him at (another school)."
  • "... We really did not know what was going on. We felt somewhat helpless. Working from home was an adjustment. It would have been better if there had been some type of info for a transition to this type of school..."
  • "The school was disorganized and did not have a full staff. My daughter had three science teachers from August until Dcember [sic] and had exactly one live lesson..."
  • "...The live web classes were hard to learn from because the teachers were in cubicals [sic] (in one large room) and it was so loud on their end. We could hear all teachers talking at once. Plus most children were playing in chat while class was in session..."
  • "The school ended up being a lot more work for the coach than we expected. In my opinion the role of coach was really teacher. The actual teachers relied too much on the automation. And didn't do enough to answer questions that came up..."
  • "...Teachers missed classes, and when they did come to class were mostly unprepared to teach the students. The instructors seemed generally unprepared as well. One example - our son's English teacher sent the class an email full of grammatical errors and emojis. Based on these experiences, we felt that we had no choice but to return our son to his former school..."
  • "...We found that the lack of social interaction between other students had a negative impact on our children's behavior at home. They began to exhibit symptoms of depression among other things. We put them back in a traditional brick and mortar school and they had a complete turnaround in behavior and mood."

School leaders preferred to point to the successes they're having. Parent success satisfaction scores were fairly high at both charters. At Virtual Academy eight in 10 parents said they intended to return the following year; Connections Academy said a recent survey found that more than nine in 10 parents (91 percent) would recommend the school to others.

The article also alluded to state oversight that is still trying to understand the online model of education. Earlier this year both virtual schools met with the 11-member panel that oversees the quality of charter schools in the state. The questions asked by the panel were mostly "basic": Where are you located? What does a day for the student look like? And do they take tests online?

Another area of concern: For the 2015-2016 school year, the schools both received overall performance grades of D from the state, including C in reading and F in math. Those grades are calculated from a combination of metrics based on school achievement through testing and academic growth.

As the state of North Carolina goes into its third year of operating virtual schools, proponents of the model point to waiting lists for both schools to demonstrate the need for the online option. Until then, the article noted, school leaders "ask for patience as they work to increase their test scores and decrease withdrawals."

WRAL coverage is on the station's website.

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